"Does anyone have a nutmeg grater?" "Does anyone have a lighter?" Nine bartenders are rushing around the Fifty/50, a three-story bar/lounge/restaurant in Ukrainian Village, gathering ingredients and tools. They're shaking, straining, and muddling, making foams and garnishes, and occasionally setting things on fire. Their creations are gradually lining up on the bar, but there are no customers around to consume them. The place isn't even open. The bartenders have assembled for a mixology lab, the latest project from the Boozehound, a company Kyle McHugh started last fall to "help people drink better things better." At the more-or-less bimonthly events, some of the city's top bartenders gather at places like the Violet Hour and Le Passage to mix cocktails and to learn about the spirit featured that day. McHugh aims to focus on unusual or little-known ones, and today it's Qino One vodka, the only spirit in the world made from the Andean grain quinoa and the first vodka to be certified fair trade.
After Qino One owner Jean-Denis Courtin gives some background on the vodka, the bartenders start on their cocktails, first using existing recipes (they vote on their favorites) and then making up their own. The first recipes they mix, created by McHugh, seem complex enough—the vegan Bloodless Mary requires an organic celery stalk, an organic lemon wedge, and a skewer with an artichoke heart, a button mushroom, a radish, and a grilled organic pimiento-stuffed olive—and that's just the garnish. Another calls for a foam made from "organic fair trade freeze-dried 100% coffee." But the mixologists get even more inventive. D.J. Love makes the Chocochili, a cocktail involving chocolate and serrano peppers with nutmeg, cinnamon, coffee and vanilla liqueurs, coconut milk, and vodka; Dan Barringer comes up with the Melon Love: cantaloupe, honeydew melon, red grapes, lime juice, orange liqueur, grapefruit bitters, ginger beer, Sprite, and vodka, dusted with nutmeg.
According to McHugh, Chicago is home to some of the country's best mixologists but lacks educational opportunities for those with more advanced skills, including those who've already gone through programs at places like the Siebel Institute or Bridget Albert's Academy of Spirits and Fine Service. He aims to fix that with his mixology labs. His guests have included the likes of Peter Vestinos of Sepia, who won the 2007 Chicago Iron Bartender competition and placed second in the national Shake It Up competition in February; Adam Seger of Nacional 27 and Osteria Via Stato, one of the top 20 bartenders in the world according to bolscocktails.com (in 2006) and one of the top ten in America according to playboy.com; John Kinder of MK, the 2008 Chicago "Rising Star Bar Chef" for starchefs.com (the award is given every three years and Adam Seger was the last recipient); and Debbi Peek, portfolio mixologist for Bacardi and winner of the 2007 National Cocktail Competition.
Participants learn about unfamiliar spirits and get a chance to experiment with ones they often haven't worked with before. They're not paid to attend the labs, but they don't have to pay either. The company behind whatever brand the bartenders are working with generally pays McHugh a fee, which covers his expenses; in return it can use the recipes the bartenders concoct in their promotional materials, as long as they credit the creator. Past labs have centered on Leblon cachaça, Kubler absinthe, and Hendrick's gin; McHugh seeks out brands that "have something unique to offer . . . stuff that's either new or just very different, where people haven't had a chance to listen to the great story behind it."
When McHugh started the Boozehound last fall, he'd just left his job of five years bartending and overseeing the drinks program at Weber Grill. Prior to that he'd worked at Clyde's in Washington, D.C., and Houston's in LA and Chicago, and, having spent his "entire adult life behind bars," says he was sick of all the pretension in the industry. "You've got people in three-piece suits, and you're swirling, and you're rinsing, and you're talking of lychee and of oak, and you're forgetting that our job—it's fun, and it's exciting, and it has its artistic elements," McHugh says.
A certified sommelier and graduate of the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service, he's not against being educated about booze. He just wants it to be fun as well. So he chose the name the Boozehound because "it's hard not to smirk when you hear that" and picked an image of a bulldog in a tux carrying a martini for the logo. In September he began building a Web site (theboozehound.com) with articles about beer, wine, spirits, and bartending, plus some drink recipes, and profiles and video of places like North Shore Distillery and Half Acre Beer Company. A couple months later, he started leading classes and tastings and arranging other events—like a trip to the Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Indiana, that involved drinking handmade mimosas and bellinis on the bus. The mixology labs, which started in January, are the latest addition and his favorite feature so far.
Notwithstanding the success of the labs, McHugh is thinking ahead. He ultimately wants to get back behind a bar, but this time he wants to own it. He couldn't do that without a partner, however, and he's not dying to bring one in: "What I find is that silent partners are silent right up to the point where they give you their money," he says. "And they're just never silent enough after that."
For now he's working on a different project, a liquor store in River North set for a soft opening in August. Called Drinks Over Dearborn, it's on the second floor of an office building on Dearborn between Erie and Ontario; customers will have to be buzzed in—hardly ideal for a retail outlet. Does McHugh realize this could be a problem? "It scares the bejesus out of me," he says. "But I'm hoping it might be endearing, like how the Violet Hour doesn't have a sign."
He also hopes his personal touch will keep customers coming back. People came to the bars he worked in, McHugh says, because he knew their names—and if he didn't, he at least remembered their drinks and what they had last talked about. At Drinks Over Dearborn, he wants to set up a customer database in the computer. "Ideally, I want a picture of each guest in there, if they'll let us do it. I want to know their significant others' names, their kids' names; I want notes on people as much as we can. Not to be weird, but just to be able to service them."
And, he says, he'll have tasted all the wine, beer, and liquor he stocks—around 250 products in a 2,200-square-foot space—so he can tell customers about any of them. He's also going to have a reserve room for "fun, crazy stuff in limited quantities"; things like Sazerac 18-year-old rye whiskey from New Orleans (of which Illinois is allotted only 24 bottles a year), and Pappy Van Winkle's family reserve bourbon from Kentucky. Buffalo Trace Distillery, the maker of both, is lower priced than some of its competitors—despite nearly uncountable awards over the past ten years—meaning, according to McHugh, that "price whores" don't want it. "There are only so many places that can sell stuff like this, that have the knowledge [to do it] or customers who give a damn," he says. He'd also like to get his hands on some of Three Floyds' Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout—available only one day a year at the brewery, where each person is only allowed to buy six bottles (and they usually sell out early). How'll he do that? "It's going to be an adventure," he says.
Aside from selling spirits that are nearly impossible to get, he wants to use his store as well as the Boozehound to support companies that are making an effort to be environmentally and socially responsible. For his part, McHugh plans to concentrate on products from the midwest to reduce the store's carbon footprint, use glasses rather than disposable plastic cups for tastings, and recycle any bottles that customers bring back to the store. "Not because it makes business sense, but because it makes sense... to do the right thing, even though it's not expected of us, and even though maybe it bites into the company profit. It's still just the way I want to do business."
"We're not in this to be rich—we would've been bankers if we were," says McHugh. "We're just drinkin'. We're trying to have fun and learn something too . . . . You think your chardonnay tastes like Juicy Fruit? I'll tell you why."